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Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood

Karen Ward Mahar

Publication Year: 2006

Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood explores when, how, and why women were accepted as filmmakers in the 1910s and why, by the 1920s, those opportunities had disappeared. In looking at the early film industry as an industry—a place of work—Mahar not only unravels the mystery of the disappearing female filmmaker but untangles the complicated relationship among gender, work culture, and business within modern industrial organizations. In the early 1910s, the film industry followed a theatrical model, fostering an egalitarian work culture in which everyone—male and female—helped behind the scenes in a variety of jobs. In this culture women thrived in powerful, creative roles, especially as writers, directors, and producers. By the end of that decade, however, mushrooming star salaries and skyrocketing movie budgets prompted the creation of the studio system. As the movie industry remade itself in the image of a modern American business, the masculinization of filmmaking took root. Mahar's study integrates feminist methodologies of examining the gendering of work with thorough historical scholarship of American industry and business culture. Tracing the transformation of the film industry into a legitimate "big business" of the 1920s, and explaining the fate of the female filmmaker during the silent era, Mahar demonstrates how industrial growth and change can unexpectedly open—and close—opportunities for women.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Studies in Industry and Society

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

A few years into my Ph.D. program I was lucky enough to find work doing background research for an oral history project sponsored by the Women in Film Foundation. The Legacy Series creates and preserves oral histories of important women in television and film, and it was just getting started. Amazingly, my first assignment was Lillian Gish. Within...

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Introduction: Making Movies and Incorporating Gender

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pp. 1-8

In the 1910s and early 1920s the American film industry offered women opportunities that existed in no other workplace. Female stars like Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand, and Gloria Swanson earned some of the highest salaries in the world, and many more women worked in creative roles behind the camera. In any given production the screenplay was likely to...

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Prologue: “The Greatest Electrical Novelty in the World”: Gender and Filmmaking before the Turn of the Century

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pp. 9-25

On an April evening in 1896 Koster and Bial's Music Hall unveiled Edison's "Latest Marvel" to a New York vaudeville audience. The wizard of Menlo Park, already known for his phonograph and Kinetoscope "peephole" moving picture device, did not disappoint. The Vitascope, the first commercially successful American film projector, threw...

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PART ONE: EXPANSION, STARDOM & UPLIFT: Women Enter the American Movie Industry, 1908–1916

The period from roughly 1908 to 1916, between the rise of the nickelodeon and the consolidation of the central-producer system, was without question the most promising moment for women in the history of the American film industry. First, the spike in demand for moving pictures at this time...

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1. A Quiet Invasion: Nickelodeons, Narratives, and the First Women in Film

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pp. 29-52

On November 13, 1909, Moving Picture World ran a small editorial under a large headline that proclaimed, in capital letters, "A Woman Invades the American Moving Picture Industry." The woman in question was Frida Klug, a representative of an Italian film exchange and "the only lady . . . to our knowledge to grapple with the intricacies...

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2. “To Get Some of the ‘Good Gravy’ ” for Themselves: Stardom, Features, and the First Star-Producers

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pp. 53-76

The story of the first movie star, as told in the contemporary trade press and many subsequent histories, goes something like this: On February 19, 1910, a St. Louis newspaper reported that the popular actress known only to movie patrons as the "Biograph Girl" was dead following a tragic streetcar accident. Fans did not know the name of their...

Image Plates 1

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3. “So Much More Natural to a Woman”: Gender, Uplift, and the Woman Filmmaker

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pp. 77-100

In the fall of 1907 a grammar school principal advised the ladies of the Woodlawn Women's Club of Chicago that "no properly conducted home" would let its children attend the city's nickelodeons. Those "devil's apothecaries," the educator claimed, must be "starve[d] out of existence." The agitation over moving picture theaters continued the following...

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As longer feature films came to define Hollywood's premiere product, women filmmakers achieved some of their greatest successes in the short-film format. Tworeelers were typically exhibited, often along with live acts, before the feature film to create an evening's entertainment. Two genres...

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4. The “Girls Who Play”: The Short Film and the New Woman

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pp. 103-132

The New Woman appeared on the screen in the 1910s primarily in two forms: as a serial queen—one of the "girls who play with death"—and as an irreverent comic spoofing the conventions upheld by the guardians of public morality. Short one- and two-reelers in the form of suspenseful cliffhangers and brief comedies not only survived...

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PART TWO: “A BUSINESS PURE & SIMPLE” The End of Uplift and the Masculinization of Hollywood, 1916–1928

In the mid-1910s the industry shifted away from the goal of cultural legitimacy and the uplift strategies designed to secure it and moved toward a model that prized business legitimacy. This shift ultimately marginalized the woman filmmaker...

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5. “The Real Punches”: Lois Weber, Cecil B. DeMille, and the End of the Uplift Movement

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pp. 135-153

When Cecil B. DeMille came to Hollywood in 1913 to become director-general of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, he wore a mantle of cultural legitimacy similar to Lois Weber's. DeMille was a well-known Broadway name, as Cecil B.'s father, Henry C. DeMille, a former minister, wrote the self-consciously respectable society...

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6. A “ ‘Her-Own-Company’ Epidemic”: Stars as Independent Producers

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pp. 154-178

After 1916, when Hollywood emerged as the moviemaking center of the world, the most powerful individuals were not the nascent movie moguls but the stars of the screen. In the mid-1910s, top stars Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin recognized their worth by demanding, and receiving, exorbitant salaries. Soon more stars demanded gigantic pay...

Image Plates 2

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7. "Doing a ‘Man’s Work’ ": The Rise of the Studio System and the Remasculinization of Filmmaking

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pp. 179-203

In July of 1923 Photoplay profiled Grace Haskins, "Girl Producer." At the age of twenty-two Haskins earned her moniker by writing, directing, and producing her first film, Just like a Woman. In the space of five years Haskins moved from working in a Hollywood hotel, to answering fan mail, to "talking herself into a job in the cutting room," and then...

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Epilogue: Getting Away with It

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pp. 204-208

When Lois Weber warned would-be female directors in 1927 that they would "never get away with it," the age of the female filmmaker appeared to be over. Career-advice literature for women stopped suggesting creative filmmaking careers and began urging girls to think about feminized studio work. Women might become...


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pp. 209-269

Essay on Sources

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pp. 271-276


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pp. 277-291

E-ISBN-13: 9781421402093
E-ISBN-10: 1421402092
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801890840
Print-ISBN-10: 0801890845

Page Count: 332
Illustrations: 27 halftones
Publication Year: 2006

Series Title: Studies in Industry and Society